How much are immigrants really using our nations’ health care systems?


The long standing popular narrative regarding immigrants and health care is that immigrants (legal and undocumented) have ready access to our nations’ health care systems and health insurance, so much so, that it has become a costly problem. However, I believe this not to be true. Healthcare and Health insurance is one of the major areas in which contemporary immigrants in the U.S. are facing heavy structural exclusion. Immigrants as a whole have significantly less access to health care and insurance in comparison to native-born citizens. The article that I have written aims at uncovering and elucidating the realities of immigrant utilization of health care and health insurance by identifying the major barriers to access for contemporary immigrants in the United States. To start, I have provided you with 3 videos that I feel highlight (to an extent) the current debate surrounding immigrants and health care usage.

In the 1st video, Dan Stein from FAIR (Federation of American Immigration Reform) points out that extending health care to undocumented immigrants comes at a cost for taxpayers. In the 2nd video, the news anchor questions the idea that undocumented immigrants should get health care by stating that there are plenty of “Americans” without health care. She also mentions firsthand accounts of border state emergency health facilities overwhelmed with undocumented immigrants coming in for treatment because they know they have the right to emergency medical service. Lastly she mentions that this is all unfair to hospitals and workers who have to deal with all of the undocumented immigrants and that they are not being paid in full by the federal government for their services. In the 3rd video, Bill O’Reilly (who is anchoring), states that the government, which is already going bankrupt, should not pay for health insurance for undocumented immigrants and refers to this idea as a “radical socialist agenda.” He also uses the word entitlement to describe health care concluding that health care is something that only citizens are entitled to and that undocumented immigrants shouldn’t even be in the U.S. in the first place but that they should be in their home countries. All of the videos center on the Emergency medical services (EMS) part of our health care system and portrays our emergency rooms to be littered and filled to the brim with undocumented immigrants. The whole debate clumps undocumented immigrants into one group and views them as one thing: unlawful leaches on the public sector.  They don’t see the children, they don’t see the families, the people who have been here for many years, and those who have tried or are trying to get legal status but are being road blocked by the process and the difficulty the government creates in obtaining legal status. They also portray immigrants, especially undocumented immigrants, as fully knowledgeable about their rights as evident by their “over usage” of EMS.

In 2009, FAIR published a study titled “The Sinking Lifeboat: Uncontrolled Immigration and the U.S. Health Care System in 2009” in which they claim that the U.S. government is spending nearly 11 billion dollars on health care for illegal immigrants. In the article it’s stated that “many illegal aliens are taking advantage of legislation that requires emergency rooms to treat all patients, regardless of ability or intent to pay for the treatment. The cost of uncompensated care to taxpayers and insured patients continues to rise. Uncompensated costs have caused some hospitals to reduce staff, increase rates, cut back services, and close maternity wards and trauma centers (p.2).” Included in the costs reported by FAIR are the costs of so called “anchor babies.” According to a CNS News Article by Matt Cover titled ‘Illegal Immigrants Account for $10.7 Billion of Nation’s Health Care Costs, Data Show’, U.S. FAIR Director of Special Projects and Writer of the report, Jack Martin, stated “each anchor baby costs taxpayers an estimated $10,000 each on average. These costs are usually paid through Medicaid, the federal program designed to aid America’s poor.” And of course all of this extends out of a long standing debate regarding immigrant usage of U.S. public assistance which includes health care programs such as Medicaid, CHIP, and SCHIP. Many anti-immigrant policy makers believe that these types of programs are too generous, that they extend benefits to people who are unlawfully here, and that it’s encouraging more and more immigrants to come the U.S. According to an article titled Health Care Utilization, Family Context, and Adaptation by Felicia B. Leclere et al., “The basic concern is whether new immigrants take more from public coffers through their use of services than they contribute in taxes and economic stimulation” (p. 371). To me, the current narrative is nothing more than a misrepresentation of the realities of health care usage for immigrants in the U.S. The question that I pose is: Are immigrants, legal or undocumented, really using federal health care as much as people think? If not, why not?


Firstly, the numbers would suggest that immigrants as a whole are not using health care services as much as people think.

Health Insurance Statistics2  Immigrants 2007

According to a March 2008 Current Population Survey (CPS) under U.S. Census Bureau conducted by Center for Immigration Studies, in 2007: 33.2% of all immigrants did not have health insurance vs. 12.7% of native-born Americans (table 1). 17.6% of legal immigrants were uninsured and 43.8% of illegal immigrants were uninsured (table 2). The number of uninsured immigrants is rising over time (Table 2).


According to the 2010 American Community Survey and 2010 Census, these numbers have held. 34% of immigrants were uninsured. 22% had public health insurance vs. 31% for   U.S. born.


You can also see in information from Gabrielle Lessard and Leighton Ku (2003), that a greater number immigrant children or children of immigrants are uninsured. Undocumented children use much less federal health care programs in comparison to citizen children.


So if immigrants are not using health care and are not generally insured then what are the reasons for this? I have simplified the major barriers to access for contemporary immigrants to what I call ‘The 3 Ls’. They are Legislation, Legal Status, and Language.

1. Legislation – PRWORA (Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act)

  • This 1996 reform law significantly reduced eligibility to public health care and insurance programs for immigrants (Derose, p. 1261)
  • Provisions include: 5-year waiting period (after obtaining legal status) for immigrants before being eligible for Medicaid/TANF, states retain the ability to remove the 5-year waiting period and cover lawfully residing immigrants themselves, and Undocumented immigrants are completely ineligible for all services under PRWORA. (Derose, p. 1259).

Public charge – government retains the right to deem a person seeking admission to the U.S. or permanent residence (green card) as “inadmissible” if they are thought to become primarily dependent on government funded services including long term institutional care.

2. Legal Status – Undocumented immigrants are much less likely to use health care and are more likely to be uninsured than legal immigrants. Undocumented Latino/as, for example, obtain fewer ambulatory physician visits than U.S. born Latino/as (Berk et al., 2000).

3. Language – Immigrants with low English proficiency have much harder times accessing and obtaining health insurance and health care. Adults with limited English proficiency and their children are much less likely to have insurance and a usual source of care, have fewer physician visits, and receive less preventive care than those who only speak English (Derose et al., p. 1260).

As a result of legislation and legal status, all immigrants are discouraged from using publicly funded health care services because of fear deportation or fear putting their chances of citizenship in jeopardy if they seek health care (Derose, p.1263) Even children of immigrants are less likely to use health care (Lessard and Ku, p.101). Often this is the result of their parents’ language and legal status. Immigrant parents are often uninformed about eligibility and rules because of language and because of their legal status they fear being reported to INS. (p.101, 104). Due to language barriers, immigrants have higher feelings marginalization and discrimination, which further turns immigrants away from the health care system (Derose, p.1262) as well as more misdiagnosis, mistreatment, and poor medical care (Lessard and Ku, p. 108)


There are several things we could be doing to improve the health care situation for immigrants. These include, federal level action and reform including the revision of PRWORA, expand opportunities for legal residency and citizenship, lower health insurance costs, employer mandated health insurance, developing more qualified bilingual staffs that incorporate members of the community by creating more opportunities for them, extending eligibility to parents of eligible children (which will enhance access and usage), better enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act which requires providers who received Medicaid/SCHIP to provide those who speak limited English meaningful access (Lessard and Ku, p.111), and increase funding for community health centers and outreach organizations. Lessard and Ku express the same sentiment that culturally appropriate, community based outreach is important for having immigrant, especially children, involved in the health care system (p.110).

Read about a woman bringing local health care to immigrants in Oakland (


The health care status of many immigrants, as a result of lack of access, is deteriorating which is why I believe this is an important issue. Immigrants are at a higher risk for poor physical and psychological health because of the barriers they face and given how the composition of our nation is changing and we’re becoming more and more populated with immigrants, we need to help the majority of the people beginning to build our nation. In “The Health Status and Risk Behaviors of Adolescents in Immigrant Families” by Kathleen Mullan Harris (1999), Harris examines the health status of immigrant children as an indicator of assimilation and acculturation and finds that for many immigrant children, the longer they are exposed to U.S. culture and institutions, the more they develop the health status and health risks associated with behavioral norms in the U.S. (p.311) She also points out that socioeconomic and legal status plays a role in bad health for immigrant children. This is also echoed in a Singh and Miller piece (2004) which states that the risks of disability and chronic disease morbidity during 1992-1995 among immigrants of various ethnic backgrounds increased with increasing duration of residence in the United States” (p.115) Ultimately at the moment, it appears that the U.S. government is forging a health care system in which contemporary immigrants have minimal access and structural inclusion and that doesn’t seem very “American” to me. FotoFlexer_Photo References

Berk, Marc L., Claudia L. Schur, Leo R. Chavez, and Martin Frankel. 2000. “Health care use among undocumented Latino immigrants.” Health Affairs 19(4): 51-64.

Camarota, Steven A. 2007. “Immigrants in the United States, 2007: A Profile of America’s Foreign-Born Population.” Center for Immigration Studies, Washington, D.C.

Derose, Kathryn Pitkin, José J. Escarce, and Nicole Lurie. 2007. “Immigrants And Health Care: Sources Of Vulnerability.” Health Affairs 26(5): 1258-1268.

Harris, K.M. 1999. “The Health Status and Risk Behaviors of Adolescents in Immigrant Families.” Pp. 286-315 in Children of Immigrants: Health, Adjustment, and Public Assistance, edited by D.J. Hernandez. Washington, DC: National Academiy Press.

Leclere, Felicia B., Leif Jensen, and Anne E. Biddlecom. 1994. “Health Care Utilization, Family Context, and Adaptation Among Immigrants to the United States.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 35(4): 370-384.

Lessard, G. and Leighton Ku. 2003. Gaps in Coverage for Children in Immigrant Families. Health Insurance for Children 13(1): 101-115.

Ruark, Eric and Jack Martin. 2009. “The Sinking Lifeboat: Uncontrolled Immigration and the U.S. Health Care System in 2009.” Federation for American Immigration Reform, Washington, D.C.

Singh, G.K. and Barry A. Miller. 2004. Health, Life Expectancy, and Mortality Patterns Among Immigrant Populations in the United States. Canadian Journal of Public Health 95(3): I14-121.

Undocumented Immigrants’ Mental Health

Undocumented immigrants, the majority of whom are Latino and of Mexican-origin, face poor health outcomes in the United States. The stigmatization and barriers that come along with undocumented legal status affect immigrants’ mental health. Moreover, immigrants face additional barriers as a result of linguistic, cultural, and socioeconomic disadvantages. As a result of these disadvantages and the limitations that undocumented legal status poses, this vulnerable and marginalized population faces adverse health outcomes and is at a higher risk for mental and emotional problems.

Many undocumented immigrants come to the United States for family reunification, improved economic opportunities, and to escape poverty, or to flee political oppression. However, the very act of immigrating to another country or crossing the border results in separation from loved ones, discrimination, uncertainties, and even death. In addition,  immigrants experience stress while trying to navigate a new culture, language, and customs, and to gain access to needed resources in a new country. Along with these circumstances, undocumented immigrants are confronted with restrictive U.S. immigration policies, anti-immigrant sentiments, and the uncertainties that comes along with their legal status. This has placed undocumented immigrants in a situation where they are threatened with deportation, overly criminalized, and severely disadvantaged in the United States.

Along with these various social and economic hardships that undocumented immigrants experience, their legal status also affects their access to healthcare, which has major implications on their mental health. Many undocumented immigrants lack health insurance and are ineligible for Medicaid. Therefore, a lack of health insurance means that this vulnerable population’s health care needs are unmet. In an article titled “U.S. Immigration Policy and Immigrant Children’s Well-being: The Impact of Policy Shifts,” Androff et. al state that “[t]his deficiency in basic material supports and institutional resources has been associated with negative economic and psychological consequences for parents as well as lower levels of cognitive development among infants” (2011:88). Without these needed health services, undocumented immigrants must confront the stigmatization that comes with their legal status and many psychological consequences on their own.

Sullivan and Rehm’s article, “Mental Health of Undocumented Mexican Immigrants” states that “[t]he psychological burden of being blamed and stigmatized by media and the larger society is manifested in the daily experiences, perceptions, and actions of [Undocumented Mexican Immigrants]. They are at risk of low self-esteem, guilt, shame, fear, and insecurity” (2005:248). Undocumented immigrants are exposed to inadequate occupational safety and health conditions, and they are unable to speak out against these conditions because of their legal status.  In addition, their legal status often leads many undocumented immigrants to live in fear, and to isolate themselves, which further marginalizes them from society. Furthermore, they are confronted with their representation in the media, which portrays them as criminals who take jobs from U.S. citizens and exploit public assistance. The limited agency that undocumented immigrants have in the United States and the ongoing stressful experiences they experience has many psychological health implications, such as depression. Sullivan and Rehm’s article goes on to state that depression “can be incapacitating, rendering individuals unable to fulfill daily responsibilities. It is associated with other medical conditions, anxiety, eating disorders, and use of alcohol and illicit drugs” (2005:242). Therefore, the barriers that undocumented immigration status pose affects immigrants’ mental health and would render them incapable of making meaningful contributions to their families, the United States, and society. Granting undocumented immigrants access to quality health care would be a first step towards improving the welfare of this vulnerable population.



Androff, D., Ayón, C., Becerra D., Gurrola M., Salas L., Krysik J., Gerdes K., and Segal E.  2011. “U.S. Immigration Policy and Immigrant Children’s Well-being: The Impact of Policy Shifts.” Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, 38(1):77-98

Rehm R. and Sullivan M. 2005. “Mental health of Undocumented Mexican Immigrants: A  Review of the Literature.” Advances in Nursing Science 28(3):240-251

The Role of Culture in Health

In addition to the logistical complications cited in the Immigrant Health Care post, immigrants face social barriers that prevent them from receiving adequate health care. Instead of viewing immigrants as one group, each group’s ethnicity, age, language, and culture must be taken in to account to understand an immigrant’s approach to western health care. These socioemotional conflicts are overlooked by empirical research, but become painfully obvious when viewed through an individual experience. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down explores the clash between two cultures through a Hmong family and small county hospital in California to keep Lia Lee alive. Anne Fadiman delicately presents two sides that both want their respective idea of what is “best” for Lia. Faced with language and cultural barriers in addition to mutual distrust, American doctors and the Lee family led to Lia’s deterioration of health.

Amidst the Vietnam War, the United States created the Hmong Armee Clandestine. Half of the Hmong population in Laos died in the “Quiet War.” By 1970, forced to adapt their migratory habits to wartime, more than a third of the Hmong in Laos had become refugees within their own country. In the provinces of Hous Phanh and Xieng Khouang, the war has reached into every home and forced every individual to make the agonizing choice of flight or death. Today, more than 200,000 people live in settlements and military bases, confined to a mountainous strip of only 50 to 90 kilometers. The rest of the provinces are in total desolation. After the U.S. signed the Paris Agreement pledging to withdraw its forces from Vietnam, the Pathet Lao crossed the cease-fire line and announced the extermination of the Hmong. In a matter of a decade, half their population was killed in war, 3,000 were displaced, and over 10,000 were left at the hands of the Pathet Lao. The Lee’s distrust of America began here.

Lia Lee was the Lee’s first child born after arriving in the United States. She was birthed in a small county hospital in Merced, California with doctors who had no regard for spiritual practices that the Lee family felt would determine her soul’s presence, and therefore, their daughter’s reason to live. Three months later, Lia’s sister slammed the front door, and as the Lees believed, frightened the soul out of Lia’s body. The American doctors diagnosed her with epilepsy. The Hmong regard it as divine, because many of their shamans were afflicted with it. They have been chosen as the host to a healing spirit, allowing them to communicate and negotiate with the spirit realm in order to act as public healers to the physically and emotionally sick. In addition to these beliefs, Hmong also have many customs and folkways that are contradicted by those of the American mainstream and medical communities. For example, some Hmong traditionally perform ritual animal sacrifice, and because of very specific burial traditions and the fear of each human’s many souls possibly escaping, the traditional Hmong beliefs do not allow for invasive medical surgery.

Through miscommunications about medical dosages and parental refusal to give certain medicines due to mistrust and misunderstandings, and the inability of the doctors to develop more empathy with the traditional Hmong lifestyle or try to learn more about the Hmong culture, Lia’s condition worsened. The dichotomy between the Hmong’s perceived spiritual factors and the Americans’ perceived scientific factors compromised Lia’s health. Ultimately, in a climax of miscommunication leading to Lia being seen as an illness rather than a complete person, Lia suffered a detrimental seizure that left her in a vegetative state. After suffering through language barriers, cultural misunderstandings and judgments, pre-conceived notions, and removal from her parents’ care, Lia Lee became the casualty in the battle of two cultures.

Anne Fadiman’s book turns a tragedy into a case study that has been used for medical patient reform throughout the country. The understanding that culture affects health just as much as the patient’s access to health is crucial in understanding the future of our nation and its people, regardless of documentation. Immigration is an undeniable mixing of cultures, and this cannot be forgotten once inside an emergency room.

Works Cited

Fadiman, Anne. 1998. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.